Friday, May 29, 2009

The Neverending Problem of North Korea

So North Korea is doing some more saber-rattling again. I remember when there was even more hand-wringing in fear of a full blown war with North Korea in 1994 when the rogue country was poised to eject international monitors from the country and begin reprocessing plutonium for belligerent purposes. But Jimmy Carter wonderfully (a little sarcasm here) came to the rescue and brokered an agreement for the Clinton administration where the United States would pony up economic aid in exchange for the suspension of North Korean nuclear weapons program. Yup, that really worked well. Forgive my frustration with idiotic diplomacy, but at least I'm a little less harsh and cynical than a past editorial which was as timely in 2006 as it is today.

In fairness, there's plenty of bipartisan blame to go around, as referenced in an analysis from the Washington Post. There's evidence that unilateral pressure and engagement without the cooperation of all the other UN Security Council members (especially China) has failed. There's also evidence that six-party talks leading to unkept assurances are similarly fruitless - a sentiment voiced recently by Secretary of State Clinton. 

So pundits will continue to state the obvious, as a recent Newsweek article did: that there needs to be appropriate balance "carrots" and "sticks". Nobody reasonable would advocate a military action without sufficiently allowing room for diplomacy to work. But I think it's about time to realize that UN Security Council condemnations without any corresponding meaningful actions and statements of "outrage" have historically been grossly ineffective - just like past "negotiated treaties" which are taken as seriously as Paulie Shore. So people at the State Department and the Obama administration will try to try to rationally deal with those who are irrational.

Not at all to minimize the seriousness of a potential sale of weaponized atomic material to other rogue nations or groups or a direct attack from North Korea on any of the United States' allies, but two things come to mind:
  • This dialogue from the movie "Team America: World Police", which seems to lampoon well the idea that stern condemnations will bring the North Korean nuclear program to a screeching halt:
Kim Jong Il: Hans Brix? Oh no! Oh, herro. Great to see you again, Hans! 

Hans Blix: Mr. Il, I was supposed to be allowed to inspect your palace today, but your guards won't let me enter certain areas. 

Kim Jong Il: Hans, Hans, Hans! We've been frew this a dozen times. I don't have any weapons of mass destwuction, OK Hans? 

Hans Blix: Then let me look around, so I can ease the UN's collective mind. I'm sorry, but the UN must be firm with you. Let me in, or else. 

Kim Jong Il: Or else what? 

Hans Blix: Or else we will be very angry with you... and we will write you a letter, telling you how angry we are!
Sometimes, you just have to laugh at things. I suspect the North Koreans are.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Little Too Much Vicarious Living

In another sad story highlighting people who take sports a little bit too seriously, a Nigerian man killed four people when he ran over a group of Barcelona fans who were celebrating Barca's win over Manchester United.

Many of these soccer fans are absolutely nuts. I mean, you can say what you want about Oakland Raider fans and people who sit on the upper level at Philadelphia Eagles games, but there's nothing that stirs up fan passion the way that soccer does. In fact, it's true that soccer was key part of the backdrop of a war, though not the underlying cause as some misunderstand. But still, nothing makes me think about the modern day analog for the frenzy of the Roman Coliseum than a soccer match.

I'm a sports fan, and I confess that I've celebrated great victories and have lamented over tough defeats. Someone pointed out to me that one of the ways that sports fans illustrate unhealthy fandom is the use of the plural first person, such as "Man, we were doing so well until the fourth quarter" or "We need to play better defense." We? Unless you're somehow an owner, employee or player on the team, how exactly are we staking a claim to be part of the team?

Of course I know why fans (and I) do it. We live vicariously through our sports teams because the thrill of victory feels good. Which is usually just fine until you decide to commit vehicular homicide when your team loses.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Semi-Spontaneity at the Jersey Shore

As of last Friday morning, Sarah and I still had no plans for Memorial Day weekend. The traditional barbeque at our house never materialized, and between Sarah's busyness with the kids and my busyness at work, plans such as Dutch Wonderland and Sesame Place were kicked around but for a variety of reasons never firmed up. So we were pretty much ready to make it a garden variety weekend with the blessing of an extra day.

At work at around 11am, Sarah called me and suggested that we do a quick ride to down to Wildwood Crest and stay over Friday night. Sure, why not? Having been there twice in the past four years, we knew the route and we knew where to go for good food, and the kids always are suckers for the beach, so it seemed like a winner. So after I got back from work early, we huddled into the car and made our way down the Garden State Parkway, and after enduring some pretty gnarly traffic, we finally arrive at our little beachside motel.

It was a great time, and I'm glad we did it. The kids got a good hour and a half of beach time before the sunset. We went to an old favorite, the Ravioli House, and stuffed ourselves before grabbing a cannoli for dessert. The kids were fading, and we put them in the separate bedroom in our suite (after our insomnia session on a trip last December, we've become big believers in finding and booking accommodations which include a separate room where we can put the kids) before calling it a night. The next morning included a good three hours of beautiful beach time, lunch at the Lobster House, and a surrey bike ride and shopping in Cape May.

For a hyper-organized (i.e. anal) guy like myself, it was a nice departure from the usual "plan weeks in advance while trying to scour the web for any discount" routine. Angst from screaming kids in the backseat while driving notwithstanding, I think I enjoyed myself enough to do it again someday.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Appreciating Memorial Day

Yesterday, I took the opportunity to tell Daniel why we celebrate Memorial Day. That despite what he saw around him, it wasn't about sales at the stores or barbecues. I told him that as Americans we celebrate Memorial Day to remember people that gave their life defending our country and all that we stand for. So we watched a couple of Memorial Day videos on YouTube and did some Memorial Day-themed coloring.

On Sunday night, Sarah and I caught on television the National Memorial Day concert in D.C. featuring Lang Lang and Katherine McPhee as well as a moving oral tribute given by Katie Holmes and Dianne Wiest. I am reminded that regardless of what your views of war or the particulars around why our armed forces are fighting in certain locales, all of us as Americans owe a debt of thanks for those who serve, and especially those who gave all.

Thanks to all of you who serve with pride.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Losing My Free Ride

I love credit cards. I love the convenience of not having to carry a lot of cash around. I love the fact that I don't even have to consider the humiliating prospect of carrying a man-purse to organize my loose change. As one of those responsible cardholders who automatically pays my balance in full each month (which also keeps me honest about my spending), I love the fact that I get a little bit of interest "float", since the time value of money means that I pay less than face value, plus I get a significant amount of cash back. It's what the credit card companies call a "free ride".

There's news that credit card companies are going to start cracking down on people like me, largely as a result of losing the ability to gouge people who traditionally have been wildly irresponsible with their credit cards. You see, the recent model was all about charging ridiculous interest rates and penalties for people who would either carry a monthly balance, or worse - fail to pay a minimum balance. Now that Congress is cracking down on such practices, the credit card companies are looking for another source of income - the responsible cardholders with good credit.

The article mentions that banks will  "look at reviving annual fees, curtailing cash-back and other rewards programs and charging interest immediately on a purchase instead of allowing a grace period of weeks." Ugh.

Here's my defiant retort to the credit card companies. I know that you're not simply making money off of credit card abusers - you're also making good amounts of money charging merchants a percentage of every purchase I make, an interchange fee, which averages around 2%. So credit card companies still make money of those with good credit, who are often people who are very large purchasers - important given that these interchange fees are a percentage of spend. 

Then it comes down to the prisoner's dilemma game theory. Who is going to blink? I won't hesitate moving from Citibank Dividend to AMEX Blue (which I did two years ago upon Citibank capping their rewards) to CapitalOne Rewards to PartnersFirst Cash Back (a useful table of reward credit cards is here) in order to escape the fees or caps on rewards. I suspect that the credit card companies are going to be very careful about rocking the boat too hard, lest they see some revenue sources walk away to other competitors.

We'll see. If I lose my free ride, it was nice playing the system while it lasted.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Preying on the Goodness of Others

About a year ago, my parents told me about a plight of family friend's son and daughter-in-law. Our family friends lived in Ohio, and I remember fondly a road trip that we had a taken for a few days to visit them when I was in the sixth grade or so. I was very sad, however, that our pet hamster was near-death when we returned, but I'm getting off track here.

The son, Phylip, was a few years older than I was, but was a nice guy who was pretty fun to hang out with. In my memory bank, I recall a typical Asian kid with a New Order poster over his bed and a laid-back demeanor. Nice guy, which I appreciated all the more since it went against the grain of some family friend older kids who treated me like dirt who didn't hide the fact that they had no interest in playing video games or wiffle ball with me. 

Flash forward decades later to 2008 when my parents told me of a situation where Phylip and his wife were under grave hardship, having been victims of identity fraud and cancer (which also ended up being a grave lecture to me about the dangers of identity theft). My parents had told me that Phylip's mother had written letters to a number of family friends appealing for financial help, and my parents wrote a generous check to them. 

As of late last year, my father shared with me that Phylip's sister had blown the whistle and was trying to alert people that the appeal was a scam. Things have gotten ugly, and many people within my parents' friends' church (Phylip's father and mother) were furious that they had been duped. In more recent news, prosecutors in Ohio have formally charged Phylip Chen and his wife Melanie with theft and receiving stolen property, while Phylip's parents (who as of now remain uncharged) are likely personae non gratae in the local Taiwanese community - as it's still unclear if they were knowing and willing conspirators. An even more recent update reports that Melanie Chen, who had fled Ohio, was captured in Utah, and Phylip has pleaded 'not guilty' to the charges.

It's terribly sad. I'm not going to try to get into the psychology or the motives of those who prey on people's charity, but the damage is immense. For everyone who opened their hearts and wallets to help somebody in need, how can they not help but be a little more cynical the next time someone needs a helping hand? For myself, I wonder to what degree stories like this either appropriately or inappropriately steer me away from personally helping people financially, instead only giving to faceless non-profits. It's probably this cynicism that drives me to prefer giving to the Goodwill Rescue Mission as opposed to the man sitting on the corner crying, "Can you please spare me some change so I can get something to eat?" So I need to be careful that stories like this are used as lessons that rightfully give wisdom to my charitable giving, as opposed to excuses for my own sin of not loving others as I should.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Interesting Points Made While Selling Out Your Colleagues

An interesting commentary on made the argument that contrary to President Obama's claim that our country is not producing enough primary care physicians, the reality is that the root of problem would probably be served poorly, or even exacerbated by a push for more physicians.

The rebuttal is penned by Clayton Christensen and Jason Hwang, M.D. M.B.A., authors of "The Innovator's Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care", and argues that the the gaps in primary care would most cost-effectively be addressed by nurse-run clinics, as opposed to primary care physicians. For those primary care physicians, their plan would be to leverage expert software so they could do some work that medical specialists would normally do. As for the specialists? The plan would be for them "to do even more complicated work that merits their additional training."

I actually like the idea in theory. It's essentially built upon a theory that less-expensive resources can effectively do work "further up the food chain", so primary care gets cheaper and so does specialist-type procedures. What's not completely clear to me, is how this the change in the balance of supply and demand will affect the individual providers of those services.

Put another way, if you view healthcare services as pillar, which might be a pyramid. The base of the rock represents primary care, and salary per practitioner will decrease as will costs per patient. Assuming that primary care physicians remain the same in number but will now be pushed up to lower frequency specialist procedures, will there be a corresponding drop in revenue per doctor? And how many specialists will you need to do that aforementioned "complicated work that that merits their additional training"? I never got the sense that specialists were desperate to do primary-care work to pay the rent. Is there going to be sufficient demand for all of these specialists who now have primary care physicians doing some of their former work?

With the proposed influx of nurses and nurse-practitioners who will now focus on the former domain of primary care physicians, we may see lower salaries for physicians, both primary and speciality care. And unless medical schools restrict supply appropriately, you may see doctors without a chair to sit in. So Dr. Hwang, your brilliant ideas might not be the greatest prescription for your fellow physicians. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Grace Under Fire at Notre Dame

I have to say that I'm pretty impressed by how President Obama handled the controversy surrounding his reception of an honorary degree at Notre Dame. As someone who is largely at odds with his stance on abortion, I appreciated the calls for Notre Dame to rescind his honor and invitation to speak to the graduates, but also felt that something largely redemptive could occur as mutual grace was extended. That is, the grace of a university to honor a man for the many excellent things has represents - while not at all hiding from the fact that it disagrees strongly with his view of abortion; but also grace on behalf of President Obama, to accept the invitation knowing full well that he would be jeered and demonstrated against and that his views would very much under scrutiny.

I'd like to think that in many ways, we saw some of those glimpses of redemption. I will hold out hope that President Obama is a praying man (as he says he is), a praying man who is open to the work of the Holy Spirit to change his views to those which are consistent with God's own. I will hold out hope that through constant engagement with those earnest "common ground" opponents to abortion - maybe even some people with whom he dialogued with over the weekend - he'll favor principle over political expediency and work diligently do partner with people across the spectrum to do what he says is the sweet spot: "work(ing) together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term." Fine - let's see some results around this, but the actions that have been taken so far in the Obama administration have been less than promising. 

I hold out hope that he means what he says when he rants against the phenomena of "reducing those with differing views to caricature." and calls out those on the left-wing of his own party who marginalize people of faith as backward, evil and hateful. I hold out hope that his story about how he came to both the church and Christ interacting with Catholic mercy ministries in the south side of Chicago serves as a reminder to people of faith that our work which demonstrates our faith really does matter.

I hold out hope that my good feelings are justified, and not simply the fruit of remarkable political savvy from President Obama and his speechwriters.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Is One Man's Pride Another's Racism?

As an ethnic minority, I've always been very sensitive to matters of race. I recognize that there's a thin line between the pride in one's ethnic background and heritage and the marginalization of others. When one embraces a distinction of their race which is regarded as positive - let's say for example, "Asians generally have a strong focus on the family" - are we by implication slighting those who aren't Asian, implying that those ethnicities do not or at least are less so? Any attempt to deny this seems disingenuous, as the observation would be meaningless unless there was a true distinction between, in this case, Asians and others.

I have an an even stronger reaction for affinity for one's own ethnicity which translates into favoritism manifested by commerce or employment. Or specifically, a desire to patronize only those who belong to a specific ethnic group, as noted in a movement amongst some blacks to buy goods and services only from other blacks. I understand the rationale of those who say that this is an issue of self-empowerment and trying to give a helping hand to a segment of those who are under-represented in the small business world.

Yet it still gives me a gut negative reaction. Let's flip it - would it offend you at all if everybody outside of your own race would refuse to buy your goods or services or hire you for a job because everyone decided to abide by a intra-ethnic commerce code? Is it kosher for an Asian entrepreneur in, let's say, fashion, who owns his own business to hire only Asian people, even if they're less qualified, in an attempt to empower members of his own race?

My sense is that personal commerce, whether it be manifested in goods that you buy or hiring decisions, need to be driven by merit. While "merit" might be debatable, I'm still not understanding the logic of purchasing a inferior product or service at a higher cost simply because of the color of the skin of the manufacturer or store owner. Doing so simply fails to incentivize the right behaviors and qualities. Just look at the automobile industry which may have been improperly buttressed by a wrong-headed "Buy American" movement.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Engrossing, Yet Too Close To Home

A few night ago, Sarah and I watched what might be one of the most powerful and emotionally gripping and engaging movies (some enjoyable movies such as Mamma Mia can hardly be described as "powerful" and "emotionally gripping") I've seen in a while. Dark Matter, a film debut by Chinese opera director Shi-Zheng Chen, is a drama about the life of a Chinese doctoral student who comes to the United States to work as under a revered professor he looks up to, only to become entangled with academia politics and cross-cultural complexities.

The movie features outstanding performances by Ye Liu, Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn, all who are extremely convincing in the roles that they play - Liu as the brilliant yet emotionally struggling graduate student; Streep as the earnest and warm cultural-exchange patron, and Quinn as the politics-playing-yet-not-overtly-evil professor.

One reason why I suspect I like the film so much is that I can appreciate, if not relate to the storyline. My father was a graduate student who emigrated from Taiwan to Canada to study microbiology and I'm sure had to struggle with isolation and was put in a position where he had to work his tail off as a foreign graduate student. My father was fortunate that his hard work was rewarded in time - he was given glowing recommendations which helped earn him placements at Stony Brook and to the Waksman Institute at Rutgers, eventually leading to a research position at a major pharmaceutical company.

Another extended family member has found, at least until this point, less success, having dealt with advisors who have been (in his eyes) less than forthcoming, honest and supportive. It seems that he may very well be dealing with the conundrum of the graduate student who is at the mercy of an exploitative professor: "Do a good job and I'll take all the credit for your work and I won't let you leave." or "Do a bad job, and I'll let you leave and give you a crap recommendation."

I definitely recommend the movie. But if you're a struggling foreign graduate student, you may want to wait until you're in a good place to watch it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Window Into Our Kids' Driving Future

On our way to visiting my in-laws this past weekend, we stopped by at a mall somewhere in Connecticut, where we stopped for a quick bite to eat at Johnny Rockets and let the kids stretch their legs a little in a little indoor play area that they had in the mall. It was, after all, a bit of a drive, and we wanted to kids to have a chance to run around a little before hopping back into the car.

The play area was a five by ten yard enclosure which had glossy, yet sturdy solid plastic slides shaped as mushrooms, upright walls with objects which could be spun with small hands, and a couple of cartoony animals, boats and cars which could be climbed on and into. It was sort of like a Seussical wonderland made out of polymers.

What was interesting was seeing Daniel and Sophia happily sitting in two adjacent cars pretending to drive as they spun their respective plastic steering wheels around and round. Sarah and I leaned against each other and just sort of looked at them, wondering if this was some sort of strange window of what we might see sixteen or even twenty-five years from now, watching our two kids pull into our driveway. Who knows? Maybe they'll, as my brother and I do, pull into their parents' driveway with their kids to visit the grandparents.

I just hope they drive better than we did as teenagers.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Surprising Conversation at Work

I had a brutal week at work last week, which included an overnight stay of business travel and jam-packed days filled with meetings, conflict resolutions, escalations, and downpours of incoming Blackberry messages and e-mails coming from every which way. There were conversations and negotiations within colleagues in my company as well as with those outside my company. I hardly had time to think - only time to react.

On Friday, I was in my office when one of the administrative assistants in my group (though not my admin) stopped by my office and asked me if she could ask me a question "about an assignment" she had. Assuming that she wanted to get direction about how to best organize a summary for which she was asked to create a PowerPoint or information about a strategic initiative I was involved in, I told her that I'd be happy to answer any question she had.

So still standing at the doorway of my office, she asked, "What are the consequences of living outside the Word of God?"

To give a little context, I had found out a few months ago that this admin was a Christian by noticing some faith and inspiration-themed paraphernalia in her cubicle, so I introduced myself as a Christian and would dialogue with her on occasion about our faith. When I would drop by her cubicle in order to schedule a meeting with a colleague that she supported, I'd share about something that challenged me about a recent sermon. It wasn't contrived - just a great way to share something the Lord put on my heart that hopefully was mutually edifying.

So I invited her to take a seat in my office, and we talked a little about her question. We talked a little about Romans, and how while there is grace when the Spirit convicts us appropriately of sin, there's a danger that our constant sin may risk almost a numbness and blindness that we are dangerously no longer affected by it, even though it destroys us. So even as those who are free in Christ, we enslave and ensnare ourselves.

I guess it's clear that now that her "assignment" was something from her church fellowship or Bible study. I'm guessing this wasn't something given to her by our group Vice President. It obviously wasn't like the rest of the conversations I had a work that week. It was probably the most enjoyable.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Apparently, You're an Idiot For Not Buying More Expensive Coffee

Starbucks Coffee, who has watched many customers flock towards cheaper coffee which is almost as good if not as good, has gone on the offensive. In new ads, Starbucks takes thinly veiled shot at up-and-coming coffee seller McDonald's with ads with clever taglines such as: "Beware of a cheaper cup of coffee... it comes with a price," and that "compromise leaves a really bad aftertaste." The marketing campaign will "focus more on value and the quality of the Starbucks experience."

Granted, I'm not a devout Starbucks drinker even though I like their caramel macchiatos, but this completely reeks of an ad campaign that insults the customer's intelligence. It's the flip-side of my concerns around the Microsoft "our product might stink, but how about that bang for the buck?" ad campaign I had referenced in an earlier post.

So the point, Mr. Schultz, is that I should be willing to pay 75 to 150% more on a comparable cup of coffee because it's much better to order my coffee from someone with a green apron who hands it off to someone who will stick it on a round side table while calling out my order as opposed to getting it from a red-uniformed McDonald's cashier? Or maybe I'm paying for the leather seat and rug within the Starbucks that I never get to use because it's jammed packed, or the absence of kids which would plague a McDonald's.

I'm not quite understanding the value proposition.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dinner and a Show

Last Saturday, my family and I decided to treat ourselves and go out to the new neighborhood restaurant, a Japanese hibachi-style steakhouse. The restaurant, Sapparo, stands where the previously maligned Mongolian barbecue J.P. Lee once stood. I didn't think J.P. Lee was as awful as Sarah did, but her culinary experience was so horrible that she never gave it another chance. 

That's the tricky thing about Mongolian barbecues: since it's essentially "make your own concoction", the establishment is at the whim of your own ability to mix ingredients and sauces to create a good flavor. Since most of us aren't from culinary schools, we tend to over saturate our food with sauces with terrible results ("hmm... I like Thai peanut sauce, Vietnamese fish sauce, teriyaki sauce and sweet and sour sauce. It seems to reason that if I mix 'em all together, it'll be delicious!"). Add to that our inability to balance our choices of meats and starches, so we either feel heavy or generally unsatisfied. Of course, we place the blame on the restaurant, and its name is mud.

In any case, Sapporo was a nice change of pace, especially for the kids. I've been to a Japanese steakhouse once, about eight years ago during a consulting gig near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For Sarah and the kids, it was a treat to see our hibachi chef do his little cooking utensil juggling schtick and oil-fueled fireball show, to which Sarah kept telling Daniel, "Don't try that at home, okay?" The food was actually pretty decent, but at least in my book, it's clear that you're really paying a premium for the chef's little show, which is great especially when you have kids who get bored easily.

Next stop, Medieval Times

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Not Indoctrinated, Just Socially Needy

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow pens a note that might be intended to serve as a defense of religion but actually unintentionally serves as fodder for those who question the very legitimacy of faith.

The column starts by debunking the myth that those who are "religious" are simply by-products of parents of parents who brainwashed them dogma, pointing to large amounts of those who were raised as non-religious who eventually became people of faith in a recent Pew study.

Where Mr. Blow possibly unintentionally drops the ball is his premise and implication that "while science, logic and reason are on the side of the nonreligious" (his words), those who come to faith do so because they feel a void in their lives around questions as weighty as "But when is the choir going to sing? And when is the picnic? And is my child going to get a part in the holiday play?"

Ugh. This is basically a restating of a major atheist and humanist argument, that is, faith is completely irrational and illogical, and religion is simply a creation of man largely build upon human neediness for things such as group singing, social companionship and a chance to have your kids engage in community activities. Yup, that's the ticket. Your religion is a complete fabricated fraud, but live in that fantasyworld because you can satisfy your emotional neediness. It's a salute to Karl Marx's observation that religion is the opiate for the masses.

So if Mr. Blow is a Christian, I think he seriously needs to be a little more "prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." (1 Peter 3:15) That is unless he's essentially the type of person he alludes to above - a closet humanist who keeps a religous affiliation for the sake of picnics, choirs and holiday plays. If our arguments presume a framework where "logic and reason" and "love and compassion" of religion are somehow mutually exclusive and the case for faith essentially boils down to people's emotional neediness, I'd anticipate that most of our New York metropolitan post-modern contemporaries will be unimpressed.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Variable Emphases on Morality

A friend of mine recently pointed out an AlterNet article on the work of progressive Jonathan Haidt, who has outlined, through a construct that I'll share in brief later, different views that conservatives and liberals have around morality, and why liberals should be able to understand, if not appreciate, their counterparts' point of view in hope to work constructively and collaboratively going forward.

Haidt basically argues that the morality is multi-faceted, and that despite traditional liberal arguments that they're either "more" moral or "just as" moral as backward-thinking conservatives, both groups simply have different emphases on the spectrum.

Dan McAdams, a fellow acacdemic, summed up Haidt's five foundational moral impulses as such:

Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.

Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.

In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.

Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.

Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad. 

The research that Haidt has done has shown liberal emphasis on the first two and conservative emphasis on the last three. None of this is surprising, and he makes the point that it's not as if either group completely ignores the areas of non-emphasis, pre-empting challenges from either group from protesting, "Hey, it's not as if I don't care about XXX." The construct is a means for a liberal to tell other liberals (and conservatives for that matter), how to get their heads around understanding opposing moral viewpoints without being condescending.

Looking at the user comments, which are mostly left-leaning given the audience of the site, it's sad to see that many are stuck in the "I will not give moral equivalence or similarity to a hateful conservative agenda that is based upon people's ignorance and religious mythology" mode. There are glimmers of hope, such as one reader who refused to join in the legions of others dismissing an article which had the audacity to humanize conservatives instead of stating that "liberals are good and conservatives are evil":

One poster brought up that poelemic "America, Love it or Leave it" and said that conservatives should have done that. Have we as liberals really come that far? That same poster decried that conservatives saw that they didn't like America and worked to change it. Isn't that a value that we as liberals espouse? When I started working for social change I heard almost continuously the refrain "If you don't like it here go to Russia where you belong!". I always thought, "But don't you get it? That's why I love it here, because I CAN do this!". Have we really come full circle and it's now time for us to kick the other guy out? 

They say power corrupts and if that is what is happening keep me out of power forever! I may never agree with what someone who dissents says (like the teabaggers--fake though it was the people involved did not think so!) but I will defend to the death their right to do so! 

I have gotten myself off topic here (as I am famous for!). To get back on point.......we need to understand each other--if we do not we will be forever divided--if we are forever divided we will cease to be the rulers of our own destiny. I, for one, do not want that to be the kind of world my children inherit. I hope I am not alone.........

As a fallen people, we all have our blind spots. Even Christians have, in practice, imperfect and imbalanced moral constructs which, despite our best efforts, lean somewhere between Jim Wallis of Sojourners and James Dobson of Focus on the Family. None of us completely gets it, but I look at the God of redemption in the Bible - I look at Jesus' ministry here on earth, and I see the manifestation of perfection in each of those moral impulses.  For those who are followers of Christ, I would hope that a truly open and non-politically skewed pursuit of him would lead to the revelation and addressing of some of our own blind spots.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not Quite Paul on the Road to Damascus

A few days ago, a couple of friends of mine invited me a Christian Union benefit reception in New York City. Christian Union, for those of you who don't know, is a ministry dedicated to advancing the Christian faith in Ivy League schools. Whether the focus of the ministry is elitist or not is something I'm not going to get into at the moment.

I did find interesting, and I told this to my friends, was one of the featured guests in this benefit reception:

Keith Elias, Princeton '94
Former NFL Player

When I was at Penn, Keith Elias distinguished himself as public enemy #1. He was an excellent running back, outstanding by Ivy League standards, and his brash personality and incendiary comments poured gasoline on the rivalry. In an article in Sports Illustrated, Elias did his best Jeremy Shockey / Brian Bosworth imitation, shaving his hair in a mohawk and matter-of-factly took verbal shots at Penn, saying it was a shame that Penn could admit players who could not be admitted to Princeton. 

The article outlines the response from Penn students:

Reaction was not subtle. The sports editor of Penn's The Daily Pennsylvania called Elias "a joke" and "a loudmouth" in print. The Penn marching band prepared a halftime routine about telephone Princeton admissions: "Press 1 if your father went to Princeton. Press 2 if your grandfather went to Princeton. Press 3 if you were a bad child actress. Press 4 if you're a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. (Beep.) You're admitted." 

On campus, the vitriol was palpable. We absolutely hated this guy. Chants of "Elias [stinks]!" were plentiful, and believe me, there were far worse things that were said.  Following the loss to Penn and at a basketball game at Princeton's Jadwin Gym, Penn fans in the balcony started heckling Elias, to which he responded by charging in a rage towards the balcony, only to be restrained by the arena guards. 

And the theory that it was just the bitter school rivals that disliked him can be put to bed. Eight years ago I had asked two Princeton friends, one from my church and one from business school who had actually played on the football team, what they had thought of Keith Elias, who was at Princeton when they were. The friend from church said he was "kind of a arrogant jerk", and my friend from business school used a figure of speech that would be inappropriate to write on a family-friendly blog.

I did hear that Keith became a Christian many years ago, during his time in the NFL. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, but I'm thrilled that Keith is a brother.